How War Can Make Dehumanizing and Horrific Events Seem Normal

Danfung Dennis tells Harry Siegel how he photographed U.S. soldiers posing with a decapitated head.

The Daily Beast asked filmmaker and war photographer Danfung Dennis for his response to the pictures, published by the Los Angeles Times, of members of the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan posing in 2010 with the corpses of Afghan bombers. Dennis replied by email to two questions: Do you think that happens a lot more than we know? And do you think that’s an inevitable by-product of the horrible situations that we put these men and women in?

“These horrible acts are one of the outcomes of war. You have these incredibly dehumanizing and horrific events and you have essentially young boys thrown into it. From the outside, these acts appear horrific–and these are definitely despicable acts–but when you’re in the situation, at the time they happen, they can seem quite normal.

“I was embedded with a U.S. Army unit north of Baghdad in 2008 at the height of the violence. During a patrol, the unit came across a decapitated head sitting on a market stall with a note on the forehead that read: ‘This is what happens if you work with the Americans.’ The young soldiers playfully packed up the head, took it back to base, and then took pictures with it—holding it up and grinning with their war trophy.”

Since the troops were taking pictures themselves, Dennis says, nobody thought it was unusual that he did as well.

“I sent those pictures back to Newsweek, but at the time they decided not to publish them because they felt they were too incendiary. So, these types of acts are more commonplace than we think. I think it's hard for most people to comprehend the complete absurdity and the horrific nature of war. It’s hard to imagine just how absurd these events are, and when they do happen, there are no rules on how one acts. Moral codes break down in these horrific situations. So these acts do happen, and with the proliferation of small cameras and instant sharing on the Internet, we’re going to be seeing them more often.”

Dennis’s picture ended up running in Rolling Stone. While the Army has reportedly launched a criminal investigation of the soldiers in the photos published by the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, the soldiers in Dennis’s shot seem to have been let off more lightly. According to an unclassified letter from an officer about the photo that Dennis forwarded, the soldiers seen in it “were given company letters of reprimand and the chain of command talked to the company about respect and standards of behavior.”